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Friday, January 31, 2014

VIDEO: Due process and drones

Tanzi introduces bill establishing clear guidelines on drone use by law enforcement

STATE HOUSE – Rep. Teresa Tanzi has reintroduced her legislation to regulate the use of aerial drones by Rhode Island law-enforcement agencies.

“Law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country are already using drone technology, and it’s only a matter of time before many agencies in Rhode Island are, too. We ought to establish the ground rules proactively, because without limits, we’re leaving the door open to the potential for serious invasions of privacy,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett).

Last year Representative Tanzi agreed to be surveilled in her home and backyard by an inexpensive drone purchased by the Providence Journal as part of a story on the easy availability of the technology and its use. The tiny craft captured high-resolution video of her all over her house through her windows, and inside her hedged and fenced private yard. She told the paper the experience resonated with her, affecting the feeling of privacy she’d previously felt in her home.

The legislation (2014-H 7170), which she also introduced last year, would establish clear protocol on the use of drones by law-enforcement agencies in Rhode Island, requiring public hearings before their acquisition as well as assent from the applicable city or town council for municipal departments and the governor for state agencies. 

As is the case currently for wiretapping a phone, each individual use of a drone by a law-enforcement agency for investigation of criminal or civil matters or for any intelligence-gathering purpose would require the involvement of the attorney general’s office, which would have to get approval from Superior Court on the agency’s behalf.

To get that approval, the agency would have to detail exactly who is the target and why, as well as where and when the drone is to be used. The agency would also be required to say whether other investigative methods have been attempted and failed or why they reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried, or why they might be too dangerous. A contingency would be available for emergencies to assist someone if his or her life or safety is in danger.

Eight other states have enacted similar restrictions in the last year alone.

“This bill is strictly modeled on existing framework used in wiretap surveillance, so law enforcement is already very familiar with this process,” said Representative Tanzi. 

“Drones have very serious potential for invasive, overreaching use. When it comes to using tiny, unmanned, nearly undetectable robots to watch people when they have the presumption of privacy, we ought to be very, very selective. I’m sure there are cases when the public would absolutely benefit from their use, for example, capturing a dangerous criminal or search and rescue. But their potential for abuse and violation of citizens’ rights is great, so we should place reasonable limits on their use.”

She introduced the legislation Jan. 23. It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.